The astronomy affair that shocked Swedish science Part 2: investigation of professors’ “harassment” violated constitution

Academic Rights Watch comments on a further complaint against two prominent Lund University professors of astronomy, which raises serious questions about the investigators’ own role. The investigation is used by the investigators, to restrict freedom of speech in violation of the Swedish constitution. An inaccurate article in Nature spread on Twitter by the former complainant then leads to a social media campaign against the professors.

ARW has previously reported on a complaint against the prominent professors of astronomy at Lund University, Sofia Feltzing and Melvyn Davies, in which they are both accused by researcher Florent Renaud of harassment, bullying and abusive behavior. The complaint lacks substance and sometimes borders on the bizarre. For example, Davies was accused of not getting more involved in the department’s coffee-making, which Renaud apparently took as a personal attack.

The matter was investigated by consultants from the company LifeWise. Despite the investigators’ intention to conduct a “fact-based investigation,” we found that the proceedings degenerated into an extra-judicial show trial in which Feltzing and Davies are described as “the accused” and the former is then “convicted.” This is despite the fact that health and safety legislation does not allow for individual culpability in health and safety cases: “[t]he purpose of work environment legislation is to prevent ill health and accidents, but it does not regulate compensation or guilt issues” (AFS 2015:4, p. 15).

Shortly after Renaud’s complaint, another researcher also filed a complaint against the academic couple for various alleged violations, namely the lecturer in astronomy NR. NR’s complaint turns out to be one of the least convincing complaints we have ever read. However, that does not prevent Davies from being “convicted” this time as well. Once again, this is to be done in violation of health and safety legislation, but this time also in violation of the constitution.

Before we go any further, we would like to stress that we in no way intend to ridicule NR or his complaint, which like Renaud’s is probably written in good faith and without malicious intent. Rather, the point of our analysis is to demonstrate the problem of allowing a clearly groundless complaint to form the basis for various administrative sanctions against individual researchers and even to justify restricting freedom of expression. Moreover, the fact that the researchers in this case belong to Sweden’s absolute research elite raises questions about Lund University’s ability to protect its top scientific representatives.

NR states in the complaint that Feltzing and Davies threatened his further career in various ways and created fear in him. As a result, NR is alleged to have been excluded from the workplace community. His research and he himself were allegedly belittled and made invisible.

Early in the complaint, however, NR mentions a detail that puts the whole affair into perspective. The company, LifeWise, had previously interviewed employees in connection with a work environment survey. In the complaint, NR describes the interview with himself as an eye-opener (all translations from the complaint are our own):

LifeWise’s 2020 interview was an eye-opener for me as it made me realize how bad I have felt since I joined the department in 2008 and how this feeling is exclusively linked to the abuse I suffered at the hands of Sofia and Melvyn. The investigation has also made it clear that ostracism and belittlement of me and my students has been pure harassment in the true sense of the word.

This is startling. NR writes here that his complaint was influenced by earlier conversations with the investigators and by the outcome of the investigation that resulted from those conversations. The question arises here as to what role the investigators themselves played in the creation of the complaints which they then investigated themselves. Did their conversations consciously or unconsciously suggest that Davies and Feltzing were scapegoats?

In any case, NR finds it particularly serious that his master’s students were also affected by the conflict. One “blatant case” is said to be ML, who is described as an enormously driven and intelligent student who wrote a fantastic master’s thesis, which Feltzing, as master’s coordinator, is said to have criticized at a seminar. The student, NR speculates, was thus “judged by Sofia because of her work with me”.

But ML got, according to NR himself, the highest grade on the thesis, so the “verdict” was not so harsh after all.

Another master’s student, RF, was also “subjected to the same treatment”. She, too, is said to have written an outstanding master’s thesis, which was, however, criticized by Feltzing in a way that NR resents. But NR must admit that RF also received the highest grade on her thesis. No harm done, one might think.

As a further example of having been made invisible NR mentions a situation when he was director of studies of the astronomy department. Feltzing would then have spoken of him in the third person, i.e. of the “director of studies’” tasks rather than “NR’s” tasks. This was obviously perceived as insulting.

But let us go back somewhat: according to NR he was made invisible when he was director of studies. But the position of director of studies is an elected office, i.e. a post that indeed makes him visible. The alleged invisibility of NR was thus, to be frank, preceded by visibility.

On another occasion, NR had, as he himself describes it, “been asked to investigate whether we could reduce the number of administrators,” which also allegedly led to various conflicts. But an investigation is a fiduciary duty and as such implies visibility. So NR has hardly been completely invisible in the department.

In this context, NR is said to have been worried that he would not be promoted to Associate Professor, as he felt that Davies and Feltzing, whom he assumed to have malicious intentions, could influence the procedure. But according to NR he was promoted.

This pattern is repeated in the notification: NR worries, on the basis of hearsay and his own speculation, that Feltzing and Davies will intervene to his or his students’ disadvantage, but has to conclude each time that the fears were unsubstantiated and that the outcome was, after all, what he and his students wanted.

An experienced investigator equipped with a normal dose of common sense would now, of course, dismiss NR’s complaint as internally incoherent and baseless. But the consultants Martina Johansson and Mia Gruvstad from LifeWise apparently lack such judgement. Instead, their investigation becomes a textbook example of the phenomenon that Lund researcher Mats Alvesson has called “the stupidity paradox.”

This happens, for example, when Johansson and Gruvstad find that Davies, merely by allegedly criticizing NR’s research, has “excluded” him. Earlier, in the Renaud inquiry, Johansson and Gruvstad had concluded that not including a person in a research project was exclusionary and thus offensive. So now they are putting forward the idea that even pure research criticism is excluding.

Feltzing is also “convicted” in an investigation, again, when “one in twenty-one allegations is deemed to be discriminatory treatment”. Specifically, Johansson and Gruvstad argue that “the accused should have spoken negatively about and belittled the complainant’s research”. According to the investigators, serious criticism of research is thus no longer compatible with work environment legislation.

The following paragraph from the inquiry’s conclusion is set to become a classic in the history of the inquiry:

In the individually assessed allegation, the allegation is that the accused spoke negatively about and belittled the complainant’s research. The witness who was present in the situation confirms that the accused made negative and condescending comments about the complainant’s work. The assessment is that the description of the situation based on the context is credible and it is deemed to be an incident that an employee should not be exposed to in his workplace. The offensive behavior has contributed to the complainant’s exclusion from the workplace. The two parties are part of an academic hierarchical structure and there is an imbalance of power in their work situation.

In addition to the fact that Johansson and Gruvstad are misusing the Swedish health and safety law by claiming individual guilt, the assessment they are making here runs counter to the constitution’s provision on freedom of expression in scientific matters. This reads (Chapter 1, Section 23 of the Swedish constitution:

Freedom of expression and freedom of information may be limited with regard to the security of the Realm, the national supply of goods, public order and public safety, the good repute of the individual, the sanctity of private life, and the prevention and prosecution of crime. Freedom of expression may also be limited in business activities. Freedom of expression and freedom of information may otherwise be limited only where particularly important grounds so warrant.

In judging what limitations may be introduced in accordance with paragraph one, particular attention shall be paid to the importance of the widest possible freedom of expression and freedom of information in political, religious, professional, scientific and cultural matters.

There is no indication in the report that Johansson and Gruvstad have taken into account the importance of the widest possible freedom of expression in scientific matters.

The damage would have been serious but limited if it had stopped at the fact that a substandard and unlawful investigation had singled out two eminent scientists. ARW has, however, documented a number of similar cases over the years. What makes this case so unusual, as well as alarming, is that the highly respected journal Nature learns of the investigations and makes the fatal mistake of presenting an article on the case as proof that Davies and Feltzing, who are named in the article, engaged in “victimisation” and “bullying.”

Two of Sweden’s most important scientific representatives are being defamed in front of the world’s scientific experts, and the spectacle is being promoted by various interviewees, most of them from Lund, without it being possible to determine who is the neutral judge or rather the party to the case.

Apart from the fact that the Nature article does not delve into the matter properly, it contains two ambiguities, both of which are to the disadvantage of those named.

It says that two independent investigations have concluded that Davies and Feltzing were at fault. (”Two astronomers at one of Sweden’s top research institutions, Lund University, have victimized, discriminated against or bullied colleagues, according to two independent investigations commissioned in 2020 by the university.”) In fact, the consultancy firm has investigated two complaints, where there are concrete reasons to believe that in at least one cases the firm itself played a role in the origin of the complaint.

It also states that what Davies and Feltzing are alleged to have done is in breach of Swedish health and safety law, suggesting that they have committed an offence. (“All are violations of Sweden’s Work Environment Act”) This should have been clarified by stating that work environment law does not regulate individual culpability, but that responsibility lies with the employer.

Anyway, the next thing that happens is that Renaud spreads the article in Nature on Twitter, with the comment:

The reason for my damaged health, the threat on the fundamental right of safety and well-being for myself, my colleagues and students, (and my slow reaction on scientific maters (sic)) are explained here:

The message is widely circulated and forms part of a social media hunt against Davies and Feltzing, with the result that their reputations suffer, if possible, even greater damage.

Unfortunately, the writings in Nature and on social media mean that it is no longer possible to give Melvyn Davies and Sofia Feltzing full redress for the damage caused to them by the actions of the university and other parties. They now have to live with the fact that their reputation in the scientific community has been tarnished for all time.

The least Lund University can do is publicly apologize to them and hope that the apology gets proper attention, on social media but above all in Nature.

Next, one should consider how things could have gone so wrong in this case, which may lead to uncomfortable but necessary questions to be asked about lack of research funding and other systemic failures, but also psychological and social-psychological factors, which may possibly provide deeper explanations for the apparently high stress levels of several astronomy researchers.

Davies and Feltzing have commented on the investigations into the NR notification here and here respectively.

EJO/MZ

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